Digital Dog Collars to Help Track Fido's "Friends"
for National Geographic News
|July 25, 2005|
The dog may be man's best friend, but who is the dog's best friend?
A new invention called SNiF (Social Networking in Fur) may provide the answer. The digital dog collar allows dog owners to record the activity of their canines and to monitor when and where their "pals" are walking.
"It's a tiny computer and communication device built into a dog collar," said Noah Fields, a graduate student at the Physical Language Workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.
Fields, who created SNiF with three fellow students, describes it as "mood rings meets instant messaging, but for your dog." The technology, he says, will also give dog owners a chance to "petwork," or network through their pets.
The students created the device as part of an MIT Media Lab class in which they were asked to come up with user-friendly computer tools.
"Most of us have had dogs while we were growing up, and I have had many dogs in my life," Fields said. "When we were working on the project, though, we were all students, and none of us were living with dogs."
The collar, now in prototype, has a variety of sensors that record the dog's interactions with other dogs equipped with the technology. Also, an owner can single out "friends" and "foes" by pushing buttons on the leash during a dog encounter.
When a dog's friends are out on walks, the owner will be notified by "collar tones," a sequence of colored lights that show up on the dog's collar or on a home base station.
"Part of the appeal of the SNiF collar is its unobtrusiveness," Fields said. "There are no buttons or dials. The device collects data about your dog's activities and then wirelessly updates your pet's secure Web page." (SNiF's online component is not yet available.)
Online, owners should be able to check logs of their dogs' walking history and which other dogs their pets have spent the most time with.
"The Web site will keep track of your dog's friends for you," Fields said. "This lets you learn more about other pets and pet owners in your neighborhood."
The technology could also aid lost dog recovery.
"If your dog is missing, you can configure the collar from the Web site to notify you when other community member dogs have seen your dog," Fields said. "Also, you can configure the collar to flash a distress signal when it's reported lost."
The researchers hope to have retail model prototypes completed by the end of the summer. "We've had a number of requests to buy the product, even though we have not started manufacturing any devices yet," Fields said.
To Emily Pallamore, an assistant in MIT's Office of Government and Community Relations, the SNiF system would make dog walking more fun, both for herself and her Italian greyhound and her roommate's coonhound.
Pallamore lives in a dog-friendly part of Boston that has a big cemetery and an arboretum to walk dogs in.
"The dogs have their favorite dog acquaintances in our neighborhood, and I've got my own favorite dogs and owners, as well as a few of each I wouldn't mind avoiding," she said. "The SNiF collar would make it possible for the dogs to get together with their chums without my having to set up an inconvenient and possibly socially awkward play date."
Other dog owners are more skeptical.
"It seems unnecessary and artificial," said Adam Zagoria, a New York sports writer and owner of Jazz, an 11-year-old mutt. "I don't need a device to tell me what dogs my dog gets along with."
Labeling dogs as "good" and "bad" seems a little Orwellian, Zagoria said, noting that it is "as if Big Brother is watching you."
SNiF researchers say privacy considerations are a priority. The system does not allow for the monitoring of the dogs' exact positions. Instead it identifies pet "hot spots" around the city.
Fields, of MIT, says the dog collar technology will enable people to increase social interaction with others.
"We looked for ways that people felt most comfortable interacting with strangers," Fields said. "Dog-walking came up as one of the most popular and stress-free ways of meeting new people."
SNiF, Fields said, "aims to harness these icebreaking characteristics and provide tools to grow these conversations into friends and contacts."
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